Thursday, June 26, 2008

Starting a New Game

Over the past week, Pat and I got involved in a new game.  Both of us and one of our other gamer buddies each tapped a person who we knew and have played with at least once before - the aim was to put together a group that's fun and story oriented.  Early signs point to good things on the horizon.

We're using the Wild Talents system, and from what I can tell thus far, it looks cinematic and gritty at the same time (which is just what I'm looking for).  The system is for a supers game, but we're playing a science fiction game in the far flung future.  The 6 of us hashed out the setting over email, and I think it's pretty cool.  Maybe I'll post a more detailed description later, but the skinny of it is this: 3 known alien races with different goals, human upstarts with transhuman abilities, the threat of a scary alien invasion on the horizon, ancient artifacts and unknown planets, and weird physics.  I'm the GM, and I don't know yet exactly how all this is going to fit together.  But I do know that the setting is volatile and provides opportunity for politics, exploration, and all out war.   Seems like a good set up to me.

Character gen went pretty well.  I like the characters so far - they each have different powers and different goals.  Hopefully, we'll be able to knit all of them together with an overarching goal that they can all buy in to.  In fact, I think this is crucial after our Burning Wheel sessions.

So, in short, I like the player mix so far, I like the setting we've collaboratively made, and I like the level of excitement that seems to be there.  I'm hoping we can get a regular game going with some momentum, and at this point, I just want to play.  Theorizing about rpgs and discussing them is all well and good (and certainly amusing), but damn the torpedos!  I just want to roll some dice, blow some shit up, and put these new characters in some really tough situations.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fightin' crime in the sandbox

Jeff Rients’ post about sandbox-style play for superhero RPGs got me thinking about the possibilities – and pitfalls – of this sort of gaming. Here’s his idea in a nutshell:

[Y]ou could assign each neighborhood some stats. A make-your-trait system like Risus can be handy for this.

declining neighborhood trying to recapture former glory(3) domain of the O'Bryan Mob(2) best bakeries in the city(2)

Heck, you could probably get a lot done with just some encounter tables with built-in change conditions.

This is intriguing, because in my experience superhero gaming has been all about the push-pull between the players and the GM. The players typically strive to live up to their righteous ideals by patrolling neighborhoods and confronting villains before they have a chance to poison the city’s drinking water or plant bombs at the children’s museum. That sort of thing.

The GM, on the other hand, is responsible for driving the story forward with some semblance of a plot. When considered alongside the players’ ongoing superheroism, an overarching plot can sometimes feel like a story railroad that detracts from the players’ own goals and motivations.

Jeff’s idea of sandbox-style play ties this up neatly, especially for gritty, street-level games. Sure, players will eventually want to confront of the head villain behind a particular gang, but sandbox play ensures that they’ll have the proper context and experience when it’s time for the big showdown.

The only potential problem I can see is lack of social encounters to satisfy cerebral gamers – but really, this is sort of endemic to all superhero RPGs, especially the Silver Age ones I’ve played lately. Nice, meaty social roleplaying and intrigue is best packaged as part of a larger plot, which needs to be balanced carefully alongside the players’ motives.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Found the treasure! Or, a visit to Half Price Books in Dallas

I've been an energetic patron of Half Price Books since my first visit in years past. It's a super cool store with a great mission, plus they invariably have a great selection of gaming books and graphic novels. Pricing is intuitive: Everything is half-off the cover price.

Well, I dropped into what I soon learned was the flagship store and corporate headquarters of Half Price Books today while in Dallas for business. Here's the setup: The day's work was finished, and I was cruising Park City in a rented Malibu. The auto powered its way over a hill - and then I saw it. A huge red sign looming over the freeway, inviting me in with promises of out-of-print books and CDs.

I stopped in and browsed for a goodly while. They had a ton of old D&D stuff, including a good half-dozen books with spine credit by Gary Gygax. Cool stuff - to bad it was sort of falling apart. The next shelf held a bevy of oddball games from the beginning of the 21st century, when the Grim Meathook Future started looking more and more likely and movies like The Matrix glamorized the idea of firing off thousands of bullets in a heavily populated city. Gritty, street-level urban games; I saw Underground, Heavy Gear and a glut of World of Darkness titles. Mmmm, darkness. I love a good dark game.

I ended up walking out with a barely used copy of the Tribe 8 core book. Tribe 8 has been my elusive quarry for many years: I've known about it for a good while, and I've sort of mentally reserved a space on my post-apocalyptic shelf for it. In the past, I kept running across the splat books, but never the real thing. Today it is mine! It actually wasn't marked with a price, and I was bracing myself to cough up $15 if the clerk decided it retailed for $30. But he surprised me with a svelte $5.98 price, which I paid gladly.

Next up for me: Gamma World, Darwin's World, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Redline and Unhallowed Metropolis. And A|State is available on PDF now...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

One key for successful worldbuilding

Ben pointed out that collaborative worldbuilding is his preferred method of gaming. I’m of a similar mindset — indeed, our local group is poised to build our own sci-fi setting for Wild Talents — but there’s a huge concern that GMs should keep in mind when embarking on this sort of venture.

Basically, the GM can’t keep very many secrets from the players. In a setting that’s only been sketched out on a legal pad or typed up as a quick Word doc, there will be precious few crunchy bits for players to chew on. As such, the GM needs to lay all the cards on the table so players can create nuanced characters with real goals. The GM shouldn't, for example, reveal a shadowy government organization six sessions into a campaign — because the commando player would be confused as to why his character didn’t have at least passing knowledge of the group initially. Little things are fine, but big story elements leave players scratching their heads thinking, "Huh? OK, I guess that's part of the game now." Get me?

Luckily, this quandary is really just an excuse to further fine-tune a collaborative setting. For the Sovereigns superhero setting I created with some friends back in 2002, we ended up codifying everything into a sourcebook that we then shared around the table. It’s also a great excuse to snatch ideas from published settings, which I do with great prejudice pretty much all the damn time. Need a space station for a character’s backstory? Flip open Transhuman Space, grab and idea and then present it to the players. Chances are that at least one other player will seize the concept and incorporate it into his or her character — and then you’re off and running.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My Kind of Fantasy

Pat has challenged me again: In response to my comments that I'll probably never play D&D again (after cutting my teeth on it in the early years, a year long sting with 3e, and playing the 4e demo), he challenged me to say what I look for in fantasy game.  I don't want this to be a D&D bash session, so instead I'll just try to focus on what I want a fantasy game to do for me.  Many of the characteristics I discuss below apply to the types of games I like to play generally.

First, I want a fantasy game that is dynamic and cinematic.  I don't want characters to move up to a monster and keep making to hit rolls - I want to see the sword slice down and watch the blood spatter on the wall.  I want acrobatic leaps onto the backs of bucking beasts and to have my character barely hang on to daggers plunged into the beast's shoulders upon impact.  Finding this level of cinematics usually comes at the expense of crunchy and tactical play - it's hard to make this kind of stuff happen with a lot of rules.  

Second, I want a fantasy game that's gritty.  In a land of sword fights and black magic, death happens and eyes get poked out.  The problem here is that gritty games often have lots of rules - it's pretty cool to roll the dice and find out exactly what location on your body gets hit.  Can a fantasy game be both gritty and over the top cinematic? I don't know, but I'd sure like to find one.

Third, I want a fantasy game that's about more than taking treasure and getting XP.  I like my characters to have goals that are well tied into the the desire to go on a mission of vengeance for the abandonment the party next to a wyvern lair.  In fantasy settings, I favor having somewhat grim or seedy personal goals.

Fourth, I like to bring the epic also.  No fantasy setting has every inspired me as much as LOTR (and this probably goes for many others out there as well).  As both a GM and a player, I love the possibility of changing, saving, or remaking the world.  The macro stuff is what got me into rpgs in the first place.  In a land where magic, powerful artifacts, and ancient evil are just over the horizon, I feel like games are lacking when they don't embrace these elements.  I recognize there's another tension here between the epic and the personal (and possibly unsavory) goals.  But that's the kind of tension that makes characters tick in the best kind of literature and that brings games alive for me.

Fifth, along the lines of bringing the epic, I want large scale stuff to be at least some recognized part of gameplay.  I just got a copy of the new game Reign by Greg Stolze, and it has a nice set of rules for dealing with "companies" and their interactions with each other.  While I'm not saying this system is the holy grail (hell, I just read it last night), it is certainly aimed at scratching the macro itch that I have.  What's the best part of the LOTR?  The armies clashing into each other.  The movie's nothing without it's strong actors, script, and characterization.  But the epic battles and struggles for power over the land are at the heart of fantasy for me.

Finally, it's worth noting that I don't really care as much about setting.  In general, rpg setting materials don't inspire me all that much (I know this isn't the case for Pat and probably many other gamers out there).  So, I'd rather create a setting for myself that contains the elements I find interesting.  I mean, if you've been playing rpgs for long enough, can't you just spout out "desert world" or "cities floating in a gas giant", start drinking a cup of coffee, and write down a page worth of ideas come out by the time you get to the bottom of the cup?  Though, I do like it when games throw out one liners or examples of cool situations that highlight cool aspects of the rules (like parts of the Dark Heresy PH).  

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: The Inquisitor's Handbook for Dark Heresy

Dark Heresy, the horror/sci-fi rpg set in the voluminous Warhammer 40k universe, recently saw its first two supplements released: the Inquisitor’s Handbook and Purge the Unclean, a collection of three linked adventures. I picked up the Inquisitor’s Handbook and spent an afternoon thumbing through it; here are some thoughts.

To begin with, I didn’t really thumb through it. That implies that I skipped around and didn’t really dwell on one section. The exact opposite happened; I found myself pausing to digest each chapter and entry. Before I knew it, I was reading the whole damn thing. Luckily, this is the mark of a great book. I’ve owned a dozen “player’s guides” for various games before, and none were as packed with detail as the Inquisitor’s Handbook (IH).

It’s an incredibly meaty read, chock-full of tasty morsels from the 40k universe. I played the tabletop wargame for many years, so I understand a lot of the organizations and events described in the IH – but still, it was a real treat to see it all codifed and presented so lovingly in a book. Character development takes a great leap forward with the new career paths and additional options in the game.

My favorite parts of the IH are the offhanded details mentioned here and there that hint at the broader conspiracies that run rampant through the Imperium. Single-sentence descriptions of mutant uprisings in the lower levels of a hive world, Chaos pacts between gods and corrupt noblemen, or horrific tales of an Inquisitorial purging gone awry: these are the details that make the 40k universe grand, and I’m excited that the game line now encompasses three published tomes.

The release of the IH and Purge the Unclean is something of a milestone for the game. Shortly after Dark Heresy was published, Black Industries (a subsidiary of Games Workshop) announced it would cease publishing the line. “Craziness!” fans hollered. “Don’t they know they have a hit on their hands?!” Indeed, it was a hit. The first printing of Dark Heresy debuted earlier this year in the States and sold out within weeks. I watched many, many ebay auctions end above $100 in those dark days before finally securing one for near retail price.

The IH and Purge the Unclean are the last Dark Heresy books to be published by Black Industries. A fourth, Disciples of the Dark Gods, may or may not be scheduled for release in September. The game line itself has been licensed to Fantasy Flight Games, which is awesome because they’re a top-notch company, and I’m expecting great things from their continued support of the line. However, the timeline is a bit shaky at this point. I’ve spoken with some folks at FFG, and they’ve confirmed that there’s a senior line developer in place for the game line, but they’ve not yet begun writing additional supplements. At best, we’d be lucky to see a new, FFG-produced release within a year’s time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Burning Wheel needs an explicit buy-in

More than perhaps any other game I’ve encountered, Burning Wheel really needs a common buy-in from players in order to make it viable. This realization forms the theme of my reaction to the game, which I’ll describe here in support of Ben’s postgame breakdown from last week.

He pointed out that our party sort of self-destructed because Burning Wheel’s beliefs system tends to force players into antagonistic roles. This is especially true in a “burned world” – that is, a setting created on the spot by the players and the GM. Because Burning Wheel encourages players to create a unique game setting just prior to character creation, there’s relatively little shared knowledge out there for players to draw upon. When one character seizes upon a bit of backstory or history, the other players tend to leap aboard as well, sometimes crafting opposing beliefs.

In our game, this happened once we sketched out the concept of the Tome of Architecture. We agreed it was a big, powerful book of Dwarven lore, and each of the characters then created beliefs involving the Tome. It turned out that they were all some variation of “I want the Tome for myself, and I’ll do anything to get it.” As you can imagine, this led to inter-party conflict and ultimately brought the party to a premature end (with my character fleeing with the book and then falling, pierced with arrows, into a lava river, still clutching the Tome). It's very telling that our GenCon demo also ended this way, with players competing to seize a bit of treasure in a dungeon.

So what’s the solution? I think it involves having some sort of macro-level buy-in that all the players can agree to, something that artificially removes the temptation of crafting adversarial beliefs, at least initially. This can be as simple as the good old “you were sent by the king to investigate X” or as complex as the feuding members of a royal family willing to put aside their bickering in order to achieve some shared goal.

It also helps if the players are all more or less heroes; we played a “morally ambiguous” group in our Burning Wheel experience, and I think it helped escalate our downward spiral.

Anyway. All the other game elements were a lot of fun – the social encounters, the “scripted” combat, as well as the FORK mechanism, which is the designers’ term for loading your die pool with relevant traits and abilities. My biggest regret (in retrospect) is that we completed our campaign meltdown having barely scratched the surface of Ben’s overarching story. Bummer!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

RPGs and Comic Books

I'm one of those people who's rarely satisfied by my gaming experiences.  I've always loved gaming more in theory than in actual practice.  Waxing nostalgic yet again, I remember being 13 and looking forward to D&D marathons much more than the experience warranted.  I was never happy with our DM - he knew he loved power even at that age - and he was always better at arguing over the rules than me.  But even on the best of days, I never felt transported to that world that lurked right behind the doors and the DM on the cover of the DM's guide.

On the other hand, I love comic books.  A lot.  The tales we created when we gamed never came close to those of good comic books.  I think I still feel this way, and it makes me sad.  Comic books are so good these days.  Gaming...well, let's just say that the mainstream games are too mechanical and the indie games still have far to go if they want to consistently produce scenes of strong characterization.  Or maybe it's just us - we may just be much worse much players than my favorite comic book creators are comic book creators.

Speaking of which, I wish Bendis would just get off the Avengers et al. already.  These massive crossovers and plot threads that unfold over years are fine, and certainly a forceful display of supreme organizational writing skill.  But I miss my old Avengers.  How good would it be to see Brubaker write a classic lineup of Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Vision, and Hawkeye?  If anyone out there actually reads this, who do you think would be a good artist for this?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

4e and the Red Box

I'm one of those who was introduced to rpgs with the Red Box and realized the heights gaming could reach with the Blue Box (still my favorite rpg product ever).  As much as I've grown away from D&D since those days, I still look upon them fondly.  In that sense, I think I enjoyed 4emore than Pat (even though I'll probably never play it again) as it reminded me a whole lot of the old days, except with more options.

When I was a kid, I didn't play with a battle map (maybe just some scrawled out shapes of dim  dungeon walls on white paper).  My friend, Rusty, and I would just swing our sword at the monsters we GMed for each other over and over again in endless dungeons and in encounters that we didn't prepare in advance.  We then took the monsters' gold and XP, and miraculously advanced straight through from 1st level to immortality in no more than 10 sessions. 

Pat's description of 4e is dead on - it is battle map heaven and even seems disjointedly elegant (like Manu Ginobli of the San Antonio Spurs?) with its balanced tactical options.  But in the end, it is about rolling to hit over and over again without much attention to the other stuff that I've become so fond of since rediscovering rpgs (and comics).  Even when it was clear that we were leaving without finishing the 4e adventure at Games Plus, the DM awarded us experience points for our pre-gen characters.  If that's not old school, I don't know what it.

I can't find it in me to care about rpgs like 4e that emphasize bean counting.  But at the same time, playing 4e really did remind me of those days in the mythological past with the Red Box.

After-action report: Dungeons and Dragons 4E demo

Last weekend I demoed D&D 4E (note that the rulebook itself doesn’t actually use this phrasing; it just calls itself Dungeons & Dragons) with Kevin, Ben and a couple pickup players at our semi-local game store (it’s 30 miles down the highway).

Lately I’ve been learning my way around D&D 3.5 for my occasional Midnight campaign, so I approached this 4E demo with any eye toward possibly switching over to it eventually. We spent two hours around a table, slugging it out on the battlemap; for this, we got a free miniature and a free d20. Here are a few random thoughts.

Battlemap Rules
Without a doubt, this ruleset was developed for use on the battlemap. Characters don’t move 25 feet in a round, they instead move 5 squares (a single square equaling 5 linear feet). Nearly all the special rules reference the battlemap in some way. The imagined spatial relationship that made old D&D so exciting (ex: “You’re about 20 feet from the bottomless pit and goblins are approaching from the west. What do you do?”) is completely gone, replaced with the sterile grid of the battlemap. Oh, and did I mention that WOTC sells its own D&D Miniatures game?

Feeble Roleplaying
A laugh-out-loud moment occured for me during our first combat round, when the rogue character used one of his new “powers” to skewer a shadow spirit. I asked the player to describe the attack visually - I wasn’t satisfied with having him say “I attack the darkness!” Well, he looked at me dumbly for a long minute, then looked down at his character sheet and read the power description verbatim. It was something like "The thief produces a curved blade from the depths of his cloak and slashes at his foe!" This, it seems, is the extent of creativity and originality possessed by today’s D&D players. Given a premade character and a demo adventure, they prove themselves unable to deal with even a modicum of storytelling. Hope they never want to DM!

Party Roles
I drew a little criticism from my group because I (one of the two fighters) chose not to participate in our first fight. Instead, I tried to figure out the dungeon puzzle while the rest of the group slugged it out with the shadow spirit. Afterward the cleric player made some comments about my “role” in the party, and I responded that I was roleplaying. Roleplaying, not rollplaying. I generally disklike the four broad categories of character (striker, controller, leader and I forget the other one) and the forced playstyles they represent.

Fewer Feats
I did like the common-sense solution for feats. The designers, it seemed, split feats into combat powers, which got cool descriptions that made you want to use them over and over, and feats that you call on for various situations (like Snatch Arrows or somesuch). I also liked the idea of at-will/encounter/daily powers, although in retrospect they did seem to be a little too combat-centric for a group that doesn't break its campaign up into neat little encounter-sized chunks.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Reflections on Burning Wheel

Pat responded to my challenge, and now I shall respond to his.  We recently played a short Burning Wheel game with 2 of our friends.  In this post, I'm going to reflect on this game.  Here's a brief description of the game: A human empire that was heavily influenced by the church had conquered much of the continent.  In the process, it had extinguished all the elves and had forced the dwarves into the Wastes of Kord - a north pole like area ringed by massive mountains.  Each player had links to the "Tome of Architecture," which was a repository of dwarven culture and knowledge and, as the players soon found, a book that had the power to change the world.  During the game, the characters made it through the mountains, negotiated with (and tortured) dwarven leaders, fought various dwarves (including assassinating the dwarven king), ran into a dwarf possessed by a demon, and eventually turned on each other.  That's the story, and it was hopefully intelligible.  In order to understand the rest of this post, it would be helpful to have at least a passing knowledge of the Burning Wheel rules.  Here are some of my major thoughts, both on the good and the bad:

Beliefs: In BW, the players explicitly write 3 beliefs for their character.  These beliefs change through play, and characters get rewarded for fulfilling beliefs.  At first, I thought this mechanic was a godsend - it made it easy as a GM to create situations that would easily motivate characters (besides gold, ale, and XP).  And it was good at first, especially as the players started getting into the "artha" economy (artha is what characters get for playing in accordance with beliefs, and it helps them do stuff in the game).  BUT  the beliefs also led to what seemed like an early demise of the game to me.  The characters' beliefs ultimately drove them to turning on each other because they all wanted the Tome of Architecture for different reasons.  There were other lesser issues (like whether to negotiate with or kill the dwarven king) that drove intraparty conflict as well.  It could've been just the way we wrote the beliefs, but the system just didn't support cooperative play to the extent I would've liked.  The belief mechanic is a BIG party of BW, and while it's innovative and is well aimed at making the game character-driven, I'm not sure it allowed for enough flexibility when the rubber hit the road.

Everyday Task Resolution: This was my favorite part about BW - the way we constructed and resolved most die rolls that didn't involve combat.  In short, players create dice pools.  They get dice from various qualitative categories, like traits (e.g. cold blooded killer).  As a GM, I would react to these rolls accordingly.  If Pat tried to intimidate someone and had a cold blooded killer die in his pool, I could have the NPC react accordingly.  Because we had so many wacky traits, we often found the characters in interesting situations...completely based on who the characters were.  All in all, I think this worked a lot better to make the game character driven than the belief mechanic, which was too heavy handed.  The major problem we ran into here was the players' desire to bulk up their die pools with dice from too many categories, which sometimes bordered on the ridiculous.  I could've definitely been firmer with my GM veto power on this front.

Fighting: It's hard to envision the fight mechanic here if you haven't read it, but players script their combat actions in advance, compare moves against each other on a matrix, and then resolve.  I think we all didn't like the fighting.  Sometimes, it was very cinematic.  But we're all rpg veterans, and the fights were really slow.  Way too slow.  And combat got increasingly difficult with more participants.  I've cruised the BW forums, and there're lots of posts to this effect. The designers seem to roll with combat fine and can handle zillions of people in a combat.  But it just didn't work for us.  There was a great unintended result of this, however - because we shied away from combat, we played physically threatening scenes out until the last moment before we went into combat.  So, we ended up with some really interesting and cinematic scenes, like one player being stretched between a starving dwarven mob and the pc's hanging out of the second floor of a dwarven building.  In future games with combat systems I like better, I need to remember this - don't rush into combat rounds, because interesting stuff can happen in that grey zone between normal play and combat.  That's the stuff movies are made of.

Social Combat: BW has a system for social combat that's like regular combat but (thankfully) simpler.  We had 1 great social combat scene (the first time the pc's met 3 dwarven leaders who were plagued by infighting about how to deal with the siege of the Wastes), and a couple scenes that were meh.  I'm not sure exactly what made 1 scene hum while the others didn't.  Maybe Pat will have some insight on this.

The Endgame and the Leadup: I love when characters have their own agendas.  But in BW, as things progressed, fissures in the party got wider and wider.  One player eventually broke off from the group, and it made the game much more difficult to GM and frankly less fun to play.  Though, I do understand he was trying to play in character.  At the end of the game, the pc's all turned on each other, and it was ugly.  As a GM, I had plenty of ammo to escalate the situation and put the characters in a very difficult position where there would've been more incentives to work together.  But the party imploded.  I think this is largely due to the belief system and the lack of cohesion of characters' beliefs.  So, in the end, the game was kinda anticlimactic.  This also happened in the demo we played at GenCon.  All in all, this reinforces for me that beliefs are too blunt and direct a tool for making a game tick.  (A better tool may just be looking at the character sheets as the GM and creating situations that match up well with the various traits the players have chosen.)

My Own GMing: I think I was really up and down in this game.  I thought I had some great moments like the social combat with the dwarven leaders - I imparted necessary background info, gave the players a lay of the land of the 3 major factions, and kept the fun alive.  I was also good in that grey zone between combat and regular play - there were a couple scenes where I thought I effectively kept the pc's in danger while keeping things moving and interesting.  But the game sure bogged down at some points, especially when I gave them a chance a respite from danger.  As a player, I always try to keep the heat on other players, and I think I need to do this more as a GM - I need to be more relentless.  I also think I need to exercise a firmer hand when players argue for mechanical bonuses.  But what I really need is practice.  I've read a lot of this indie game stuff, and I drink the kool aid with some of it (e.g. creating situations for pc's instead of forcing them through a plot, trying to focus on character).  But this open ended type of play is really tough, especially when trying to get on top of mechanics I don't know so well and when trying to keep everybody around the table engaged.  

BW is a great and honestly innovative vehicle for enabling character-based play, but I think it's too heavy handed in the end.  I like it - it pushed my game and I'd try it again.  But I'd really like to wait for a rulebook that's more organized.  It's impossible to find anything in there.

The 500-word campaign setting: Dust to Dust

Ben challenged me to hammer out a 500-word campaign setting. What follows is a little bit longer than that, and it's inspired by a few disparate sci-fi elements I've been chewing on lately: the recent Phoenix Lander Mars mission, the new Mutant Future D&D setting and my own musings about what might happen if a Traveller crew ever settled down somewhere. Feel free to let me know what you think.


“Dust to Dust”

One hundred years from now, humans reached the stars, clawing hungrily into the heavens and leaving behind a cracked, ruined Earth. In the waning days of the n ext century, technological advancements ground to a halt as petty resource wars erupted on the planet’s blasted surface. Colonization was the only hope of a dying planet, and so various factions, guilds, governments and groups sped through the cosmos toward dozens of carefully mapped destinations.

These star systems, chosen by desperate scientists, offered the best hope of yielding up Earth-similar planets for colonization. Such was the urgency of the humans’ departure that the candidate planets were chosen based on telemetric data; no satellite observation was conducted. Years passed, and eventually the refugees’ massive fusion-powered spacecrafts arrived in orbit around their destinations. At that point, they were quite literally scattered throughout the galaxy without hope of ever contacting one another again. For all intents and purposes, each colonization ark was on its own, carrying in its swollen belly all the necessities for settlement: agricultural equipment, energy generators, prefab buildings and simple vehicles.

The human cargo, however, varied by each ship; some vessels launched with only a skeleton crew, hoping to birth and rear a new generation in transit. Others were full to the brim with the determined masses, each desperate soul willing to sacrifice everything for a chance at a new life. Still others made landfall after a plague or famine swept through the city-sized starship, leaving only a few grief-stricken survivors to begin anew.

As expected, the myriad planets the colonists found were largely inhospitable. Bereft of all but the hardiest life, these planets were wracked by dust storms and scoured clean by extreme weather and temperatures. Slowly, arduously, the exhausted colonists made landfall and unpacked their terraforming equipment. They had known this was coming; it was too much to hope that the planets might embrace their arrival with open arms. But no matter: The colonists were prepared to seize their future, to yank it from the dusty soil of their adopted home…

“Dust to Dust” is a campaign setting about terraforming efforts on a frontier world in the near future. Players and the GM should sketch out the specifics of “their” world – the environment, the geography, the weather, etc – as well as the look and feel of their colony ark. Was it a large ship that landed thousands of determined settlers over the course of many years? Was it a smaller relief vessel lacking some basic, important terraforming tool? Did half the colony crew die during a botched landfall attempt? Players should flesh out key characters and factions unique to their colony world as well. Influential families, corporations and organized crime could easily have taken hold in the burgeoning colony.

In game terms, the colony is assumed to be brand-spankin’-new, probably fewer than three months old. That way, the PCs are thrust immediately into the daily struggle for survival on the frontier world. Machinery breaks down regularly and replacement parts are in short supply. Political factions struggle for influence over the colonization effort, each convinced that they can help this tiny human toehold achieve sufficiency. Scientists make daily forays into the wastes looking for much-needed resources; some never return. At night, the masses huddle inside their prefab shelters and listen to an alien wind howl.

The most important character in the game is the planet itself and the mystery it represents. It can be both the savior and executioner for the squalid colony.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The full report from Gamer's Asylum in Evanston, IL

EDIT: I admit when I am wrong with a prediction, and this was certainly one of those times. Gamer's Asylum is still open in Evanston, and the store has expanded into some adjacent retail space. So things are looking up as of 7/29/2009, and I am adding this note to my original article to balance out some of the things I mention below that haven't come to pass.

Well, I dropped by Gamer’s Asylum last night. Here’s my capsule review: Keep your calendar open for a going-out-of-business sale in 8 months or so.

The store has a great location in downtown Evanston near the Dempster train station, and it’s run by a couple of friendly, talkative dudes. But I couldn’t discern much by way of a business plan; the shop was almost completely devoid of merchandise (save for a pile of “starter” Games Workshop product). The shelves were half-full and the walls were bare - not even posters! As someone who’s worked in gaming retail, this is a bad way to start a store.

The owners, to their credit, explained that they intend to respond to the community’s demands and stock various game lines, depending on their popularity. Unfortunately, this is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Game stores need to be stuffed to the gills with merchandise to survive and prosper. You need to surround your potential customers with a dizzying array of products – game books, miniatures, collectible junk, dice, paints, accessories, junk food – all in the hope that they’ll make just a single purchase in a given visit. Vast, herculean efforts are required to draw in new customers and keep them coming back, especially in light of the omnipresent Internet retailers.

You also can’t rely on existing player demand to fuel a store. You must constantly bring in new products and establish relationships with the myriad game publishers out there. You must read the industry blogs and literature and make sure you’re up on the latest new releases. If you do stock a given line, you must conduct demos and promotional events to draw in new players and customers.

Gamer’s Asylum doesn’t even have a Web site! How can that be in this day and age? The two store owners, for all their goodwill and enthusiasm, seem to have started the store simply as a way to hang out and talk to gamers. This is heartbreaking, because Chicago needs an in-city alternative to Games Plus (a fine store that’s just a bit too far away for convenience). Make no mistake, I will support Gamer’s Asylum and buy some stuff from them. I’ll game there and hopefully meet new players there. But I’m afraid I won’t be able to count on it for the long haul. By stumbling immediately out of the gate, Gamer’s Asylum may have lost its momentum entirely. I’ll report back when they start their 50-percent-off liquidation sale.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gamer's Asylum update

Well, Ben and I dropped by the Gamer's Asylum in Evanston on Sunday for the grand opening, but we were stymied - a hand-lettered sign on the door informed us that the owners had the flu and wouldn't be opening until June 4. That's tonight. I'm headed back there again; fingers crossed that I'll actually get to set foot inside this store.